Friday, November 13th, 1998
Theres a poster-size chart in the halls of CNNs Atlanta headquarters that tells the story of that networks amazing strengthand weakness. Its a graph of ratings and audience over the past decade or soand whenand only whenthe nation or world is in crisis, when a plane has gone down or something in the Mideast has blown upCNNs audience soars.
No surprise. And its no surprise, then, that CNNs crew was in place and ready last weekend to cover the parry and thrust of the latest confrontation between Iraq and the rest of the world.
They made it look easy, the same way that the Braves can, on a good day. Put Wolf Blitzer in the White House, Christiane Amanpour in Baghdad, post correspondents at the Pentagon, the UN, and a generic anchor or two at CNN Center in Atlanta, and switch back and forth, covering challenge and counterchallenge, verbal strike and counterstrike. A statement is made at the White House, and seemingly moments later, the Iraqi official response arrives in Ms. Amanpours voice.
"Lets go to the UN." "Now, lets switch to the Pentagon." "Now, back to the White House." "Lets ask no, were switching to the UN, where Nizar Hamdoon is speaking live." This is global village electronic diplomacy at its best, where officials of state argue and negotiate simultaneously through back channels and through the most public front channel there is. They watch (as we do) as actions and reactions accumulate and boil over. This political brinksmanship on a global scale is observed, moderated, and filtered through a control room in Atlanta. Switch, switch, switch. The CNN correspondents are arguably experts at their beats, and when theres a story to tell, the producers in Atlanta wisely sit back and let them tell the story. The anchor need do little more than take us live from one point on the globe to another, with mercifully little "happy talk," almost no contrived questioning of the field correspondents by the folks back home.
And well into CNNs second decade, we take this package for granted: the preproduced "Showdown with Iraq" graphics, complete with ominous music.. A dependable stable of political and military experts. Okay, theyve even fired up the annoying Larry King in "serious mode." Theyve got the routine down.
When CNNs on a story like this, it can be compelling television. And the rest of the time? I think everyoneincluding Ted Turnerexpected CNN to be able to cover all the worlds news in depth when there isnt one overwhelming story. But when theres no crisis to be found, the channels coverage is mostly paper-thin, repetitivealmost as if theyre in standby, waiting for the fire alarm to ring again.
Why? It seems that when CNN tries to tell bigger documentary-size stories, audiencesand interest in generaldont seem to be there. It could be that the channel is a precision tool that can do just one thingextremely well. Maybe theyve determined theres no way to make the other stories compelling. Maybe, during a quiet moment between crises, they should listen to a little of NPRs All Things Considered, and reconsider.